Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Trafficking in a Bad Idea

 

shutterstock_110041646Adam Mann at Wired.com reveals a startling truth: if you build roads, people will drive on them!

In 2009, two economists—Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania—decided to compare the amount of new roads and highways built in different U.S. cities between 1980 and 2000, and the total number of miles driven in those cities over the same period.

“We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” said Turner.

If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.

Mann goes on to explain that building more roads to reduce traffic is “fruitless” because drivers will take advantage of the greater capacity to travel more frequently. And that really is the sum of his point.

Now, I don’t want to respond to narrow-mindedness with more of the same. I understand Mann’s point of view. It’s true that traffic congestion is vexing, and it’s reasonable to want it to go away. Most big highways I’ve seen (with the notable exception of some in Arizona festooned with gorgeous rock mosaics) are ugly and dehumanizing. Human behavior turns ugly from behind a steering wheel. And traffic makes pollution.

Thus I concede the reasonable origins of the anti-trafficist point of view. What is so drearily irritating in this case is that Adam Mann does not return the favor.

Mann will not address the obvious conclusion: bigger highways allow for more driving, which allows for more human freedom.

Well, wait; he almost addresses it:

The answer has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around. As it turns out, we humans love moving around. And if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town. Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would.

The problem in Mann’s mind is that all this moving around is bad. Implicitly, humans acting upon their own individual choice is destructive. The tragedy of the commons is always tragic, because everything is a commons. Or something.

Mann is a big fan of “congestion pricing.” This is a top-down system for imposing extra costson using roads in high-demand times and places. The problem is that real-world implementations of such schemes are much less successful than Mann glibly asserts. The real experience, as shown in London and a few other pioneering cities, has fallen well short of the ideal.

I’m not opposed to congestion pricing in principle. I think it might be least disruptivel as applied to parking and subway use, where one simply tinkers with existing payment systems. But, researchers note the problem is far more complex than the simplistic “solutions” so far proposed. As Robert Cervero summarizes:

True social-cost pricing of metropolitan travel has proven to be a theoretical ideal that so far has eluded real-world implementation. The primary obstacle is that except for professors of transportation economics and a cadre of vocal environmentalists, few people are in favor of considerably higher charges for peak-period travel. Middle-class motorists often complain they already pay too much in gasoline taxes and registration fees to drive their cars, and that to pay more during congested periods would add insult to injury. In the United States, few politicians are willing to champion the cause of congestion pricing for fear of reprisal from their constituents. Critics also argue that charging more to drive is elitist policy, pricing the poor off of roads so that the wealthy can move about unencumbered. It is for all these reasons that peak-period pricing remains a pipe dream in the minds of many.

It reminds me of the complaints after airline deregulation: airports are overrun with commoners!

On the other hand, a natural, market-based system of congestion pricing exists. We call it “congestion”! Ordinary people, in the privacy of their sovereign minds, have concluded, contrary to the will of people like Mann, that they’d rather pay for travel in peak hours and locations via wasted time instead of tolls. You can argue that they’re wrong. You can even strike a condescending pose toward such vulgar opinion. Just don’t assume such ideas are founded on an ignorance that will shatter when confronted by a brilliant refutation at Wired.

Indeed, people make reasonable calculations about congestion all the time. I live in Ann Arbor. I’ve learned not to travel anywhere near Michigan Stadium on football Saturdays. I don’t need some knucklehead mayor with some elaborate, annoying system of toll booths or license plate-reading spy cameras to help me figure that out.

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  1. Arahant Member

    Fredösphere: Indeed, people make reasonable calculations about congestion all the time. I live in Ann Arbor. I’ve learned not to travel anywhere near Michigan Stadium on football Saturdays. I don’t need some knuckleheaded mayor with some elaborate, annoying system of toll booths or license plate-reading spy cameras to help me to figure that out.

    Indeed. I was there on a Saturday once and went through that part of town. Never again!

    My brother is a civil engineer. He cites what he calls the Kevin Costner law of road building: “If you build it, they will come.” He has some great stories about it, too, like the time they were having a ceremony to open a new highway in Arizona and people drove around the barriers to use the nice empty highway before it was open and while the ceremony was going on.

    • #1
    • June 18, 2014, at 10:08 AM PDT
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  2. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    We already have “congestion pricing” as a natural result of heavy traffic. Everyone knows you get better gas mileage on an open road than you get it stop-and-go city traffic or on a clogged highway. You pay more to drive during rush hours than during relaxed hours. A simple gas tax, such as already exists, works just fine.

    In fact, I dream of a mythical era in which the income tax is replaced by a sales tax (or some variation) and the gas tax enables citizens to contribute to road repair exactly as much as their individual uses merit. Road construction is a separate expense. I don’t know whether or not gas taxes could support that, assuming that government was less wasteful than it is today.

    • #2
    • June 18, 2014, at 10:52 AM PDT
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  3. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Aaron Miller:

    We already have “congestion pricing” as a natural result of heavy traffic. Everyone knows you get better gas mileage on an open road than you get it stop-and-go city traffic or on a clogged highway. You pay more to drive during rush hours than during relaxed hours.

    And it’s not just the extra gasoline, but time you are giving up by driving through congestion. If somebody is driving during these times, it’s a good bet that it is a necessity, not frivolous. I’ve never heard anyone say “Well, I’ve got my choice of three different routes. I’ll take the one most likely to be congested because it’s so gosh darn fun to spend 45 minutes to cover two miles.”

    • #3
    • June 18, 2014, at 12:43 PM PDT
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  4. Paul Dougherty Member

    We don’t drive in order to justify the roads that are built. What I get from this is that the the supply is not meeting the demand. Are we building roads to alleviate congestion, or to facilitate travel?

    My view is to build them until they don’t come.

    • #4
    • June 18, 2014, at 4:08 PM PDT
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  5. Carey J. Inactive

    Arahant:

    Fredösphere: Indeed, people make reasonable calculations about congestion all the time. I live in Ann Arbor. I’ve learned not to travel anywhere near Michigan Stadium on football Saturdays. I don’t need some knuckleheaded mayor with some elaborate, annoying system of toll booths or license plate-reading spy cameras to help me to figure that out.

    Indeed. I was there on a Saturday once and went through that part of town. Never again!

    My brother is a civil engineer. He cites what he calls the Kevin Costner law of road building: “If you build it, they will come.” He has some great stories about it, too, like the time they were having a ceremony to open a new highway in Arizona and people drove around the barriers to use the nice empty highway before it was open and while the ceremony was going on.

     I suppose it’s too much to hope that they ran over some of the blathering politicians who were holding up traffic.

    • #5
    • June 18, 2014, at 4:19 PM PDT
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  6. Arahant Member

    Paul Dougherty: My view is to build them until they don’t come.

     Pave the world! Make roads obsolete!

    • #6
    • June 18, 2014, at 4:29 PM PDT
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  7. Arahant Member

    Carey J.: I suppose it’s too much to hope that they ran over some of the blathering politicians who were holding up traffic.

    Yep, too much to hope. I’m still waiting for the idea of the Piper/McGuire Political Proposal to take off.

    • #7
    • June 18, 2014, at 4:35 PM PDT
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  8. dittoheadadt Inactive

    I get the realities of rush-hour traffic, football Saturday traffic, and similar obvious situations to avoid. But what to do about situations, like here in Puerto Rico, where traffic jams can and do happen at just about any hour of the day, any day of the week, for no apparent reason. And when there IS a reason, the traffic jam becomes traffic molasses. And for sure, rush hour is maddening beyond belief. (Part of the problem is that PR drivers are among the worst in the world, even worse than the ones it’s non-PC to identify, so I won’t.)

    What to do? There’s got to be some solution short of building more roads (not likely; we’re an island, and poor) that will just serve to increase the amount of driving by an equal percentage, anyway, according to the study. Tax incentives to major employers to stagger their work hours? Staggering the work hours of government employees? Maybe economic policies that increase employment so they’re not all on the g/d roads at 10am on Tuesdays?

    • #8
    • June 18, 2014, at 5:21 PM PDT
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  9. Casey Inactive

    I live in downtown Pittsburgh in large part because I want to avoid traffic. I get 2 more hours a day with my children than I would if I lived in the burbs. And if you look at real estate trends over the last decade a lot of people in a lot of cities are doing the same. That is, paying a premium to live in the city and avoid traffic.

    • #9
    • June 18, 2014, at 6:08 PM PDT
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  10. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Fredösphere: Mann goes on to explain that building more roads to reduce traffic is “fruitless” because drivers will take advantage of the greater capacity to travel more frequently.

     Here’s an alternative read on the data: We have a shortage of road miles supplied vs. the demand. So roads are being used to capacity. Building more roads meets more of the demand, but still falls short of the total. So the additional road miles are also used to capacity. Roads will be used to capacity until we build enough road miles to meet the demand and eliminate the shortage.

    If Mann’s interpretation — that roads create there own demand — is correct, then let’s take that logic in the other direction. It would suggest that the solution to traffic congestion is to close down the roads. Does anyone believe that?

    • #10
    • June 18, 2014, at 6:54 PM PDT
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  11. barbara lydick Coolidge

    In Orange County CA they’ve tried privately built toll roads that skirt heavily traveled areas. When I lived down that way several years ago, one that I would use was smooth sailing, tho a longer drive – and it eventually fed into the established route. I took it because one could cruise about 75-80 mph. Don’t know how it is these days so if anyone lives around there, I’d be interested (can’t remember the name or number, but it goes from about San Juan Capistrano to just south of Long Beach).

    My point is that if more roads are needed, let the private sector take care of them – and let the motorists pay for them through tolls.

    • #11
    • June 18, 2014, at 7:59 PM PDT
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  12. Hammer, The Member

    Good post, Fredo!

    • #12
    • June 18, 2014, at 11:47 PM PDT
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  13. SPare Member

    If consumption of a public good goes up by exactly the same proportion as the amount of new supply introduced, why isn’t that a demonstration that the problem is a choked supply of that good? Shouldn’t the real measure be hours of wasted productivity induced by traffic, rather than viewing car usage as some kind of economic bad?
    Maybe there are externalities that need to be considered, like the conversion of highly productive agricultural acreage into housing enabled by greater transit capacity, but those never seem to be explicitly called out in these studies.

    • #13
    • June 19, 2014, at 3:40 AM PDT
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  14. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The Romans had traffic jams, and passed rules about no chariots downtown in rush hours. Yes, they had rush hours. 

    I agree that this is about what people want. People are willing to spend X amount of time in their cars to get to and from work. If you add roads and make the trips faster, they will move further out to have more home at a better price, and still travel X. X is different for different people. I have a 12 min drive over about 6 miles. My X is higher than that, but I happen to work in the city I live in. 

    The answer is to build more roads, and they can be made to look pretty. Mass transit will never pay for itself. Roads do. 

    Atlanta is behind on the roads it needs. There is no good way except 285 from North 75 to North 85. An outer arc, or even a highway between 400 and 85 would be great.

    • #14
    • June 19, 2014, at 4:04 AM PDT
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  15. donald todd Inactive

    Paul Dougherty: “We don’t drive in order to justify the roads that are built. What I get from this is that the the supply is not meeting the demand. Are we building roads to alleviate congestion, or to facilitate travel?

    My view is to build them until they don’t come.”

    Paul, while I “like”d your comment, I would note that when I moved to my new location, I listened to my peers carp about the traffic on 400, 75, 85, and 285. I would see some of them arrive hours late because an accident had occurred and screwed up everything on that particular road.

    The problem here is that they add multiple lanes and those lanes are filled to capacity as soon as people figure out they are available. There is an HOV lane but the number of vehicles with more than one person is surprisingly limited.

    I don’t know that we can build enough lanes to support the traffic without completely changing some neighborhoods. When six or eight lanes don’t cut it, what will?

    Staggered start times at companies might dissipate some of the traffic, but that is not enough.

    Flying cars? Air controllers?

    • #15
    • June 19, 2014, at 5:14 AM PDT
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  16. MisterSirius Member

    Paul Dougherty:

    My view is to build them until they don’t come.

     So when you get a “bridge to nowhere,” you know you’ve finally hit the sweet spot! <g>

    • #16
    • June 19, 2014, at 6:59 AM PDT
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  17. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Thinking about this some more, I wonder if what is so irritating about Mann’s attitude, and why it looks so “elitist”, is the relative value of time vs. money. If you are well off, or a member of the chattering class, you have a surplus of money. Time is the one resource that is truly scarce. You’d be delighted to pay more, and make others pay more, to get some of your precious time back. But for working class people, money is tight. Asking them to pay more money is unreasonable, and railing at their unreasonable attitudes is ignorant and insensitive.

    • #17
    • June 19, 2014, at 7:01 AM PDT
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  18. Foxman Inactive

    If you tear-up a road it will be a bear. Ask anybody in the Detroit area who depended on I-96.

    • #18
    • June 19, 2014, at 7:25 AM PDT
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  19. Mike H Coolidge

    Fredösphere:

    Thinking about this some more, I wonder if what is so irritating about Mann’s attitude, and why it looks so “elitist”, is the relative value of time vs. money. If you are well off, or a member of the chattering class, you have a surplus of money. Time is the one resource that is truly scarce. You’d be delighted to pay more, and make others pay more, to get some of your precious time back. But for working class people, money is tight. Asking them to pay more money is unreasonable, and railing at their unreasonable attitudes is ignorant and insensitive.

     Keep in mind that the time of higher earners is more valuable to them. If they make $50 an hour, it costs them that much to sit in an hour of traffic compared to someone who makes $8. So the more wealthy person is spending more to sit in traffic. It’s reasonable for them to want to pay $15 to save a half an hour or more off their commute. I’d like to have that option in a non-top-down sort of way.

    • #19
    • June 19, 2014, at 7:36 AM PDT
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  20. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Everyone keeps saying the answer is to build more roads, but that solution has limited potential because of space constraints. Are there any effective alternatives which utilize incentives rather than punishments?

    • #20
    • June 19, 2014, at 8:14 AM PDT
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  21. Paul Dougherty Member

    MisterSirius:

    Paul Dougherty:

    My view is to build them until they don’t come.

    So when you get a “bridge to nowhere,” you know you’ve finally hit the sweet spot! <g>

     The “bridge to Nowhere” (Now the Knik Arm Bridge) is a perfect example. I have no dobt that when it is built, it will facilitate a more robust economy both in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley. Once the bridge is built, it will be a “somewhere”.

    • #21
    • June 19, 2014, at 8:45 AM PDT
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  22. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    How effective are HOV lanes at thinning traffic?

    • #22
    • June 19, 2014, at 10:05 AM PDT
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  23. Brian Clendinen Member
    Brian Clendinen Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    If all road were tolls road and we mandated everyone have electronic toll stickers/packs of which we required the money collect to be spend within a given say 50 miles radius and it all had to be spent on roads. I don’t think we would have much problems with road congestion.

    All one has to do is look at the Florida Turnpike which is over 50 years old to see this in practice. The widest road section in Central Florida is the two miles that the turnpike connect two other toll roads. This is no were close to being the busiest road section in Orlando either. Although they still have crappy off ramps which is were all the back-ups are are.

    Here in Orlando we are about to start expanding I-4 to have dedicated toll lanes with congestion pricing. They are not adding any additional Free lanes. So we will have have a hybrid road, that is both free and toll.

    • #23
    • June 19, 2014, at 10:37 AM PDT
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  24. JimGoneWild Coolidge

    Whether adding lanes to a highway, increasing Pell Grant money, doubling the internet speed, increasing the welfare budget or providing Sub-prime loans, available capacity will always be used–that’s just human nature.

    The study results shown by Adams is not new information, I read something very similar 30 years ago. When you build new highways or add lanes, people just drive more or commute from longer distances. It’s simple. But Liberals and Progressives don’t or won’t consider human dynamism–everything is viewed through rose colored, static glasses.

    • #24
    • June 19, 2014, at 11:49 AM PDT
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  25. Last Outpost on the Right Inactive

    DC and Baltimore are experimenting with EZ Pass only travel lanes. Essentially I pay a toll to use lanes that are typically less-congested than the rest of the lanes. The toll is variable, based on the time of day. So I pay for faster commute times if I want to.
    All in all, it’s not a terrible system.

    • #25
    • June 19, 2014, at 12:10 PM PDT
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  26. Last Outpost on the Right Inactive

    Aaron Miller:

    How effective are HOV lanes at thinning traffic?

    HOV lanes are completely ineffective in making traffic flow better. The DC area has multiple HOV lane implementations, and all they do is reduce the available travel lanes by one. This equates to a capacity reduction of 20%, 25% or 33%. During rush hour the HOV lanes are nearly empty, and the remaining lanes are jammed. It’s stupid.
    They are a social engineering attempt meant to encourage car-pooling. Car-pools for the modern workforce are almost impossible to make work. Yes, there are exceptions, but a successful car-pool means that all parties live in the same vicinity, work in the same vicinity AND work similar hours. In the suburbs of a large city, the chances of meeting just two of those requirements approach zero very rapidly … and the probability of hitting on all three is only slightly higher than winning the lottery with a ticket you got as a gift from a complete stranger wearing a Klingon uniform.

    • #26
    • June 19, 2014, at 2:07 PM PDT
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  27. Ross C Member
    Ross C Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Isn’t this a version of Jevon’s paradox (i.e. efficiency breeds use). So if I make travel more efficient people will travel more. One could make the same argument about electrical efficiency being useless (i.e. efficient light bulbs have little to do with energy consumption because people get used to more light) or for CAFE standards for cars (i.e. greater fuel efficiency means I can drive more for less).

    Secondly, where I live in Houston, a lot of the road expansions allow for better commuting from fast growing outlying suburban areas toward the city center. If that is true, then would you not expect this result? (i.e. you are not building the road to ease traffic on existing routes but to plan for expected patterns of growth). Of course you could starve the suburbs by not building roads, but that is pretty hard in a democracy where benefits are particular and costs diffuse.

    • #27
    • June 19, 2014, at 2:55 PM PDT
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  28. Randal H Member

    It’s funny that we are fine with socialized roads but not fine with socialized medicine. For the record, I’m opposed to both. I think as much as possible all roads should be private and we should pay to drive on them just like we should pay for our own healthcare. And no, a hidden gasoline tax is not paying for it any more than hidden taxes amount to paying for socialized healthcare.

    The demand for something perceived to be free is essentially infinite. In the case of healthcare, excess demand is controlled by rationing and long wait times. With roads, it’s paid for with delays and congestion.

    In my state, a conservative legislature passed a bill requiring divided 4-lane roads to connect all county seats to the interstate, which – in the opinion of many – amounted to welfare for the road construction industry (there are 95 counties, most of them rural). On many of these roads, you can drive for long periods of time without encountering another car. Do you think the users of these roads are paying for them with their gasoline taxes?

    • #28
    • June 19, 2014, at 7:11 PM PDT
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  29. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Randal H:

    It’s funny that we are fine with socialized roads but not fine with socialized medicine. For the record, I’m opposed to both.

    If gas tax money is being spent on things other than roads and bridges, or as you say, roads are being built with money not from fuel taxes, then yeah, you could call it socialism. But if the money is not being sloshed around and it’s going for it’s intended purpose, I think it works well. If two people drive the same car and one drives twice as many miles, he’s buying twice the gas and paying twice the tax. Seems pretty fair since he’s using the road twice as much. If two people drive the same number of miles but one is driving a 3000-lb car and the other is driving a 6000-lb truck, the truck driver is buying more gas and paying more tax but his heavier vehicle is putting more wear on the road. Private toll roads are fine in principle, but I’d rather just pay each time I fill up than to have to have a pound of various coins in my car.

    • #29
    • June 19, 2014, at 7:29 PM PDT
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  30. Randal H Member

    Randy Weivoda: If gas tax money is being spent on things other than roads and bridges, or as you say, roads are being built with money not from fuel taxes, then yeah, you could call it socialism. 

    I’m not really as dogmatic as I came across in my post – I just occasionally like to poke at those who view government largess as bad except for the largess they like. I do think it’s important that some sort of market forces operate in roads as with any other part of life. When people pay money for something directly, they value it more, use it more judiciously, and better understand its limits. Plus, the current gas tax is insufficient because we’re driving fewer miles and our cars are more energy efficient. Money is lacking to make critical repairs to existing infrastructure, but pandering politicians would rather spend what money we have on new roads rather than fix old ones.

    I agree with you on your other point – that money collected for roads should go to roads. Bike paths/lanes and public transit are fine, in my opinion, but they need substantially to pay for themselves.

     

    • #30
    • June 19, 2014, at 8:46 PM PDT
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